“This is not working”: Students coping with sexual assault, harassment allege lack of support from university

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Over a dozen cases of sexual assault or harassment failed to find support, alleges former UVSS Director of Student Affairs

Graphic by Darian Lee

For Hazel*, it wasn’t a sexual assault that led her to seek help from UVic’s Sexualized Violence Intake Office — it was the months of physical and social harassment by students, on- and off-campus, who spread a rumour that the assault didn’t actually occur.

“I had been pushed and shoved on the bus, had my photos taken down, and heard people talking shit about me in class,” Hazel said. 

UVic’s Sexualized Violence Intake Office lies within the office of Equity and Human Rights (EQHR), which is also responsible for executing the university’s Discrimination and Harassment Policy. Going into her meeting at the Intake Office, Hazel intended to file a disclosure and ask for support with her situation.

“I went in and I told [the person working at the Intake Office] everything and she was like, ‘Well what do you want me to do about it?’ She said it ruder than that,” said Hazel.

There was some confusion — Hazel had to explain that she wasn’t there about the person who had raped her, as they were not a student and the case fell outside of the university’s jurisdiction, but instead about the continued harassment by students on campus.

According to Hazel, she was told that not much could be done unless she had evidence of the harassment. She was told to seek out support from the UVSS’s Anti-Violence Project (AVP), which Hazel didn’t feel comfortable with as the student who had made up the rumour about her was friends with individuals working at AVP.

“Pretty much as soon as I said, ‘I’m not on good terms with AVP,’ she was so done with me,” said Hazel. “That was just it, and I left. I kind of just wanted someone to listen to me, but she was not happy with that.”

Several students, including former UVSS Lead Directors, have come forward with allegations of similar experiences with difficulty accessing support and a lack of survivor-centred, trauma-informed behaviour by the university.

In response to the allegations, some of which EQHR has said it perceives as “defamatory and categorically untrue,” the university provided the following statement.

“Regarding specific situations or cases, the university is prevented from commenting on any individual case by the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act,” said Cassbreea Dewis, Executive Director of EQHR. “As part of regular practice and when a concern is brought forward with respect to the handling of a file under the Sexualized Violence Response and Prevention Policy or the Discrimination and Harassment Policy, files are reviewed for compliance with the policy and to determine if there has been a departure from proper practice and principles. These reviews are generally carried out by an outside party.

“Of the files reviewed in the 2019-20 year, we have found no departure from the policy or proper practices.”

Within the first year of the policy’s implementation, the Martlet reported on accounts from students detailing a lack of support, protection, and confidentiality by the university for students who had experienced sexualized violence. In one case, a student’s disclosure of sexual assault was shared without their consent between several members of Residence Life staff. In early 2019, an external implementation review was conducted that highlighted challenges and recommendations for going forward.

“Even one is a big deal”

It was May 2019, and Isabella Lee had just finished her term as UVSS Director of Student Affairs. However, there was something still troubling Lee — a hole in the system that she had seen impact students on a professional and personal level throughout her tenure.

During her 2018-2019 term as Director of Student Affairs, Lee said she received about 15 disclosures from students of incidents of sexual assault or harassment within UVSS clubs and course unions — starting within the first few weeks of her time in office.

“Most of them were very serious in terms of sexual misconduct and sexual harassment or harassment in general,” said Lee in an interview with the Martlet less than a month after her term ended.

Of the serious cases, Lee alleges that none received disciplinary measures. Why? With regards to the UVSS, she said the answer is simple: according to UVic policy, the UVSS does not have the authority to adjudicate or discipline cases of harassment and discrimination among students. 

Because of this, when Lee first began receiving disclosures of sexual assault and harassment, she directed them to UVic’s Sexualized Violence Intake Office. However, while the university’s Sexualized Violence Prevention and Response Policy (SVPRP) explicitly names university-sponsored events and activities including co-op placements, athletic events, and conferences under its jurisdiction, it does not include UVSS clubs and course unions. If a case falls outside of the university’s jurisdiction to investigate, individuals can not file formal reports through the university or pursue community accountability processes.

As the UVSS is unable to investigate allegations, they cannot prohibit any student accused of  sexual assault or harassment from being a member of a club or course union in case the allegation is false. While the issue can be brought forward to the UVSS Board of Directors, Lee said that students often feel uncomfortable with this option, as all 22 members of the board would be made aware of their situation.

In a few cases, Lee said, students in clubs pursued restraining orders with the Saanich Police Department. However, students found it difficult to enforce as they would have to alert the police every time an incident arose.

Left with few options, Lee said that there were a few occasions where she made the executive call to informally resolve issues which were not handled by the university. The club would vote, and depending on the outcome, Lee would talk to the student and suggest they not return to the club due to their alleged actions. However, there was no way to enforce this suggestion due to the UVSS’s policy.

On average, Lee said that most clubs are not impacted by issues of sexual assault or harassment.

“But for the 10 per cent of people that it does impact, it really, really fucking sucks, and that’s because nothing happens,” she said, in reference to the numerous cases to which she witnessed a lack of response by the university and local police in her time as Director of Student Affairs. 

“That’s not how it should work.”

When asked if UVic considers UVSS clubs and course unions within the scope of the SVPRP, Leah Shumka, UVic’s Sexualized Violence Education and Prevention Coordinator and facilitator of the Sexualized Violence Intake Office, said that jurisdiction is dependent on the specifics of the case.

“There is a memorandum of understanding between the UVSS and UVic where we can be called on to step in to investigate or look into a matter, and we have done that,” said Shumka. “There can be cases where, [regardless], it’s not going to fall within jurisdiction. Not falling within jurisdiction is not because they are a course union or a club, per se, but because of other factors around the specifics of the interaction.”

Shumka said that for individuals whose cases fall outside of the university’s jurisdiction to investigate, support options are available and cases can sometimes be handled through informal resolution options under UVic’s Discrimination and Harassment Policy. 

During her time as a Lead Director, Lee had her own experience with harassment from a club. She compiled all evidence of the harassment in an email to EQHR. 

After about four weeks, Lee alleges that the university responded that the situation fell outside of UVic’s jurisdiction, as it concerned a club, and suggested she try talking to them herself. According to Lee, UVic asked for the email of the individual who harassed her in order to move forward, which Lee did not know.

In response, Lee emailed sections of the university’s policy to EQHR. They asked if she had discussed her issue with the Director of Student Affairs — the position she held at the time — or the UVSS Executive Director, to whom she had already spoken. Frustrated, Lee asked to schedule a meeting. Despite first reaching out about the issue in March 2019, Lee said she still had yet to resolve the situation at a follow-up meeting in June 2019.

“To know that I’ve been telling clubs to go to EQHR because that’s what they’re supposed to do, and then if they had that similar experience, that’s so upsetting,” said Lee.

While waiting for her own case to be addressed, another club came forward to her with a case of sexual assault. Listening to experiences shared by these individuals, Lee recalled, was an upsetting experience.

“To me, that’s just when it clicked,” she said. 

Within the first three weeks of her term as Director of Student Affairs in May 2018, a member of a club approached her asking for support on dealing with sexual assault. She tried her best to navigate the situation despite feeling bound by policy, and ultimately directed them to pursue support options through the university. 

“But then, when almost the exact same situation happened at the end of my term, I was just like ‘wow, this is not working,’” said Lee. “Clearly the university isn’t doing anything and clearly I haven’t done enough, and I’m not comfortable with that as a woman to let this keep happening.”

Following this, Lee — along with Pierre-Paul Angelblazer and Curtis Whittla, who were at the time respectively Director of Outreach and University Relations and Director of Finance and Operations at the UVSS, along with former (then current) UVSS Executive Director Sabrina Studney — met with UVic Associate Vice-President of Student Affairs Jim Dunsdon, UVic Executive Director of Student Services Joel Lynn, and Executive Director of EQHR Cassbreea Dewis. Later, Lee also had a follow up meeting with Shumka.

“The reason we wanted to meet with them was the general consensus among the four of us [from the UVSS] was that UVic wasn’t adequately addressing the concerns or allegations of students that had come forward to us,” Whittla said. “I think Isabella, Sabrina, and I all had different students come forward to us at different times, many of whom had already tried to involve UVic but were either not responded to or their concerns and allegations were not adequately addressed.

“The sense I got was that UVic was always looking for ways to not be involved, rather than looking for ways that they could help students. Rather than giving students options, they gave reasons why they couldn’t help and only changed their attitudes when the students presented them with options or quoted UVic’s policy.”

Meeting with UVic administration, Lee said, only made her feel worse about the situation as she felt the administrators focused largely on UVic’s accomplishments and not on the concerns raised. At one point in the meeting, Lee said, one of the UVic administrators said that their email inbox was proof of all the people they had helped.

“I was like ‘Okay, but there’s 15 people that I know you haven’t helped,’ and they were like, ‘Well that’s only 15,’” said Lee. “But even one is a big deal. I was unbelievably frustrated.”

Dewis and Dunsdon discussed working together to address their concerns in May 2019 — although the terms of Lee, Angelblazer, and Whittla’s positions at the UVSS all ended on May 1, 2019. However, that follow-up meeting was never held, and current UVSS Director of Outreach and University Relations Jonathan Granirer said that UVic never reached out to the current board to pursue the matter further.

Members of the 2019-2020 UVSS Board of Directors raised similar concerns as their predecessors during an education session hosted by UVic during the summer of 2019. According to Granirer, EQHR informed the board that this could be resolved by the UVSS through complying with the university’s Discrimination and Harassment Policy. However, despite efforts by members of the board, he said the issue has yet to be resolved. 

Current Director of Student Affairs, Victoria Eaton, said she has referred multiple students to EQHR, not only for issues involving sexualized violence, although she declined to confirm the exact number of students. Eaton said she followed up with EQHR to confirm these students received support.

“Conversations are ongoing between EQHR and the UVSS on how to support students better in the future,” said Eaton.

In 2017, the Globe and Mail reported that Central Saanich had the highest rate of sexual assault allegations dismissed as unfounded in Canada, with 15 out of 20 cases dismissed by police. Particularly in light of this, Lee wished she had been able to do more for students who might have had their cases dropped by the police or by the university, with the UVSS unable to help them. 

“It just made me feel really bad about myself, I’m sure a lot of people have that too,” she said. “It’s just when people come to you and you’re in a position of authority and of power to a certain extent, and there’s still nothing we can do, it just shows you over and over again why men — not only men — can get away with this.”

With weeks left in the current board term, the Martlet asked Granirer if this issue will be resolved prior to the end of his tenure.

“I’d say it’s unlikely,” said Granirer.

“Survivor-centred, trauma-informed”

After of two semesters of sexual harassment, Dakota*, an undergraduate student working toward an honours degree, changed the way she dressed, started avoiding certain areas on campus, and quit her on-campus position in a lab. 

According to Dakota, it was after a lab instructor and teaching assistant — who had targeted her with what she describes as “domineering, infatuated” behaviour both in and out of class — was put in charge of a prerequisite for the honours program that she felt she needed to speak up. In seeking support from UVic, she knew exactly what she wanted.

“When I wrote into the [Sexualized Violence Intake Office], I asked specifically for restorative action and justice,” Dakota said. “I wanted to make sure that I could still get work somewhere and be safe, and that I could maintain good connections [in the department] … I’ve worked hard for them.

“I don’t see [them] as an intentionally harmful person, but unaware and harmful enough to impact my academics.”

Dakota also wanted to ensure that any action taken would not financially impact the graduate student against whom she disclosed allegations, and wanted resources for them on unpacking toxic masculinity.

Above all, Dakota looked to ensure she could still take the courses she needed to graduate in her program, and for an apology for a statement the graduate student had allegedly made, saying that she “deserved gendered violence.”

The Intake Office reached out to the graduate student, and they came in to discuss the situation. In emails, Shumka described the meeting as “productive,” and the graduate student agreed not to retaliate or engage with Dakota. 

Afterward, Dakota went back for a follow-up meeting at the office. She was expressing her own discomfort that the graduate student was in a relationship during the time the harassment took place, Dakota said, when she was allegedly told, “Well, it’s not illegal to flirt while you have a partner.”

“And then I lost it, because it was more than flirting,” she said. “I am a person, working underneath this person, who has a lot to lose — particularly because I have a disability. It puts me in a very marginalized circumstance.”

In an email, Shumka told Dakota that in her case, there was “no pathway to restorative justice.” Community Accountability Processes, a form of restorative justice, is offered to those who file formal reports of sexualized violence. For this process to take place, Shumka noted, they must be approved by all parties, including by the university.

“I had asked for what I asked for for very specific reasons,” said Dakota, in regards to restorative justice. “The school’s policy is survivor-centred, which means that someone like me, if I say that this is how I want to go about dealing with things, part of their job is connecting me with the resources to make that happen … I had no control.”

In response to these and other allegations made by students, EQHR provided the following statement.

“We absolutely want people to access the supports that they need,” Dewis wrote. “We spend time working with everyone that comes to the office to identify the types of supports that might fit with their specific situation. If possible, we set up appointments or make direct referrals.”

Shumka said that she is never supposed to recommend or impose what she perceives is the best course of action — instead, EQHR’s procedure is to outline options and let individuals choose.

“When it’s an allegation, we’re going to do everything we can to support the survivor within the jurisdiction of the law and policy as currently written,” she said.

As Lee and EQHR are careful to note, a large number of experiences with the Intake Office are positive ones. In her first year, Cameron* says she was sexually assaulted at an on-campus party. Although she had previously not reported her experiences with sexual assault, Cameron wasn’t the only one assaulted that night and decided to report to the Intake Office in order to strengthen the cases of the other individuals.

Although Cameron can’t talk about the process of reporting through the Intake Office, as she signed a non-disclosure agreement, she feels it was far better than her previous experience with similar cases in high school. She says that she was never uncomfortable, and that things moved at her own pace. According to Cameron, the process took about a month.

“[Shumka and I] actually are still in contact, which is great,” said Cameron. “She’s fantastic, and the program here is a lot better than I had expected.”

A few months ago, Cameron experienced another, more violent assault which didn’t fall under UVic’s jurisdiction. Although she did not want to file a police report, she reached out to the Intake Office, which was able to recommend a therapist that worked well for her.

However, Cameron’s experience is not universal. Whittla, who has personal experience navigating the academic complaint process at UVic, expressed that he found that accessing non-academic support was no easy task.

“For me, someone who was on [the UVic] Senate and who has a deeper knowledge of UVic than the average student, navigating UVic’s complaints process was difficult,” he said. “I cannot imagine how difficult it would be for a survivor of sexualized violence to access UVic’s supports and be heard within their system.”

To Hazel, the label of ‘survivor-centred, trauma-informed’ isn’t an accurate description of her experiences with EQHR.

“It feels like going into a police station where people are just looking for any way to discredit me and get me out of there,” she said.

At one point, Hazel asked EQHR if they would consider mentioning the low rate of false sexual assault allegations and reasons people on average don’t lie about instances of sexual assualt in educational sessions run by the Sexualized Violence Office — particularly at sessions run in the Student Union Building. However, Hazel said that she was told the workshops would not be altered for her.

According to Hazel, a class presentation from EQHR representatives on sexualized violence prompted her to speak up again about content she felt should be included in education sessions. Although the impact of sexualized violence on other members of the LGBTQ+ spectrum had been mentioned, she asked if they could explicitly mention that in Canada, bisexual women are the most likely to be assaulted and the least likely to be believed.

“As a bisexual woman, I feel my sexuality was really used against me in this rumour,” Hazel said.

The presenter responded that he knew many queer people but had never heard of that statistic, Hazel said, which seemed to be the end of the discussion.

“It was just awful,” she said.

In response, Dewis said that there are many individuals who conduct sexualized violence education sessions, including student educators, staff from the Office of Student Life, and EQHR staff.

“We can assure you that false reporting is a key facet of the training,” wrote Dewis. “I cannot speak to these specific incidents but I can imagine that if a peer-educator was approached to change the programming they would be uncomfortable committing to those changes as that would be outside their role and responsibilities.”

“Room to improve” 

Shumka says that the committee will be large, and that the university will also conduct further outreach and consultation.

Currently, the university is in the process of forming a committee to conduct the first mandatory review of the SVPRP since it was enacted in 2017. Representatives from offices around UVic, including the ombudsperson, Campus Security, Human Relations, Faculty Relations, and Student Affairs will be selected by UVic President Jamie Cassels. The university also plans to reach out to the graduate and undergraduate student societies for a student representative from each respective group.

Students for Consent Culture, a national anti-sexualized violence organization, has a scorecard for grading sexualized violence policies. In the interest of evaluating UVic’s SVPRP ahead of the review process, Granirer and the Martlet independently graded the policy based on the scorecard, both concluding a score of 71 per cent, or a B-. According to the rankings of other students of their sexualized violence policies at universities across Canada, Ryerson scored 90 (A+), the University of British Columbia scored 87 (A), and McGill scored 68 (C+) on this scale.

Many of the sections UVic’s policy lost points for, Shumka said, are practices UVic apparently now follows — such as mandatory training for decision makers, informal resolution options, and having an advisory committee — but are not explicitly mentioned in the policy. Implementation had not begun when the policy was created, so Shumka expects many of these will be added to the revised policy through the review.

“Once you account for that, we’re actually doing really great,” Shumka said. “But of course, there’s always room for improvement, and some of these pieces are certainly open for discussion among the committee.”

Additionally, Shumka plans to request that the committee add clarification around informal resolution processes and approaches for restorative justice.

Granirer felt UVic’s SVPRP matches up largely on par with the policies of other post-secondary institutions.

“We’re doing a little bit better, but still not good enough,” he said. “There’s still a lot of room to improve.”

In looking into the issues raised by clubs and course unions under the policy, Lee noticed that UVic students were not alone in struggling with gaps in their sexualized violence policy. 

“[Other student societies] have the exact same problems that I did, which is super frustrating,” Lee said.

One student society administrator at a university told Lee that they had to go on pub crawls with student groups in an attempt to prevent sexualized violence.

With the review coming later this year, Granirer feels now is an important time for the university to critically examine how their practices and policies around sexual assault and harassment can be aligned to fit the needs of all members of the UVic community.

“The policy says one thing, it says that it is ‘trauma-informed’ … that needs to work with all branches of the university,” said Granirer. “Everybody has a duty of upholding that policy — that needs to be made clear.”

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the individuals.